Like many parents of children of color, my husband and I were consciously creating a place for our children to thrive in the security and awareness of their cultural identity and history. Anyone who entered our home knew who we were by the books on our shelves. Those books, admittedly mainly adult titles, reflected the spectrum of our African American, Caribbean, and Latino cultures, histories, politics, and interests. Still, when our oldest daughter Michelle, then five, recited those first lines of “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” I cheered her on while she practiced for a kindergarten production. I’m sure I said, “Do it again,” even though a library of books critical of traditional non-inclusive history stood not five feet from us. Her dad glanced over at me. I returned the look, reminding him of our agreement to wait until she was independently reading before we unleashed Carter G. Woodson (The Mis-Education of the Negro ) on her.
On cue, five years later, Michelle stood before me, tapping her toe until I looked up. “Nana’s from Barbados,” she said in what I knew was her case building tone. “And isn’t Pedro Cocco (her paternal grandfather) from Puerto Rico?” Yes, I answered. “So do I have to participate in the Columbus Day celebration?” There was no need to point out the actual islands on the explorer’s route. On her own, Michelle had uncovered Columbus’s treatment of the indigenous peoples with whom she identified. Once she had opened the door to a history told from a point of view contrary to the popular version, we had our entry into what I hoped was an impactful discussion. For the record, my answer to her initial query was, “No.” She didn’t have to celebrate Columbus or accept classroom teachings of the traditional telling of this or any history. “Arm yourself first and ask questions,” was a constant mantra in our home, along with, “Don’t back down.” We then turned to the books on the shelves that she had obviously discovered, starting with Before the Mayflower (1969) (Lerone Bennett, Jr.) and The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933).
Surely, there was some language I could have used on her at five to convey a more accurate account of Christopher Columbus’s role in history, his treatment of indigenous people, and his motives. And maybe if we had begun the discussion with Michelle at five, she wouldn’t have been so traumatized at seven when she got the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas lecture on our walk to school. Years later, I found Edwin Fontáñez’s Taino: Libro de Actividades, The Activity Book (1996), to begin a discussion with our youngest, Stephanie. She enjoyed the book’s activities and followed the central character, a Taino boy, but she still wanted to carry the Pinta ship’s flag in her class’s Christopher Columbus re-enactment. I had thought all was lost with Stephanie, until years later I overheard her argue with her Italian friend over Christopher Columbus’s hero status. Exposure worked.
Thanks to Afrocentric and Indigenous and Latino based publishers like Just Us Books and Cinco Puntos, we stocked our bookshelves with picture books and fiction with characters of diversity for children. Still, missing from our shelves were non-fiction books tailored for a child’s grasp, with the exception of biographies. If we wanted our children to have a more inclusive account of history, we had to take responsibility for providing age appropriate materials, which also included having our kids spend time with elders. In her 2014 National Book Award acceptance speech, Jacqueline Woodson implored us to listen to our elders before they were gone, underscoring the belief that when elders die off, irretrievable identity and culture dies with them. In our home, elders were anyone who gave firsthand accounts and perspectives of past events and eras, or anyone whose accounts had been handed down by their own elders. Through elders we listened to stories about our family from slavery through World War I from a great-grandmother raised by her African great-grandmother; experiences in the segregated U.S...